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Slavery and the Civil War: Not What You Think

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With a volley of artillery fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861, the South started a war that nearly destroyed the United States in pursuit of a terrible cause. In that conflict more than 630,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in four years of hellish war. To place this in perspective consider that the entire population of the United States at war's end was 35 million, putting war casualties at nearly two percent of the total populace. Equivalent rates of casualties today would result in five million dead or wounded, dwarfing our losses in World War II, or any other war.

Why did two percent of our population suffer death or maiming? Over the issue of state sovereignty and the interpretation of the Tenth Amendment (ratified in 1791). The text is simple enough: "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." But we also have the Supremacy Clause of Article VI of the Constitution, which say, "This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding."

This week, marking 150 years from that momentous event at Fort Sumter, is an appropriate time to reflect again on what happened and why in this epic constitutional dispute.

That "terrible cause" of the South is usually thought of as the defense of slavery. This is what we are all taught in school; and the idea is strongly entrenched today. In the April 10, 2011, Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. defined the Civil War as a conflict over property rights, the property being of course four million slaves living in the South at the time. He concludes that the "Civil War was about slavery, nothing more."

I disagree. Yes, slavery was of course the central point of contention, but as an example of state sovereignty versus federal authority. The war was fought over state's rights and the limits of federal power in a union of states. The perceived threat to state autonomy became an existential one through the specific dispute over slavery. The issue was not slavery per se, but who decided whether slavery was acceptable, local institutions or a distant central government power. That distinction is not one of semantics: this question of local or federal control to permit or prohibit slavery as the country expanded west became increasingly acute in new states, eventually leading to that fateful artillery volley at Fort Sumter.

Specifically, eleven southern states seceded from the Union in protest against federal legislation that limited the expansion of slavery claiming that such legislation violated the tenth amendment, which they argued trumped the Supremacy Clause. The war was indeed about protecting the institution of slavery, but only as a specific case of a state's right to declare a federal law null and void. Southern states sought to secede because they believed that the federal government had no authority to tell them how to run their affairs. The most obvious and precipitating example was the North's views on slavery. So yes, the South clearly fought to defend slavery as a means of protecting their sordid economic system and way of life, but they did so with slavery serving as the most glaring example of federal usurpation of state powers of self-determination. The war would be fought to prevent those states from seceding, not to destroy the institution of slavery. The war would be fought over different interpretations of our founding document.

The inherent tension between Article VI and the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution has kept lawyers busy and wealthy from the day the words were penned, and the argument goes on today. But the South went a significant step further than arguing a case. In seceding from the Union those states declared the U.S. Constitution dead. The president of the United States, sworn to uphold the Constitution, had no choice but to take whatever measures were necessary to fulfill his commitment. Cleary if any state could withdraw from the Union whenever that state disagreed with others, the Union over which Lincoln presided would not last long. So war came.

But freedom for slaves did not. President Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation until January 1, 1863, more than one and a half years after the war started. His goal was initially to preserve the Union, and he only issued that proclamation when he felt doing so would promote that objective. One could argue that if the primary cause of the war was slavery then Lincoln's first act would have been to free them. Historians have written many volumes on Lincoln's timing and motivation, but one thing is clear: slavery was not his first priority.

To support the idea that the war was only about slavery, Mr. Pitts cites newspaper quotes from 1860 that note the grave threat to the economic value of slaves if the North prevailed politically; and Mr. Pitt provides quotes from a few articles of separation from states that specifically reference slavery as a cause for seceding. But that just proves what we already know: the South wanted to defend slavery and their cotton economy. We understandably focus on this specific while ignoring the broader issue in contest. But a subset of a set is not the set. An example of an issue is not the issue. Slavery was a specific issue of a perceived violation of a state's rights, over which the country went to war. Claiming the Civil War was about slavery alone is like saying that the recent revolution in Egypt was about unseating Mubarak and nothing else. That conclusion misses the more important point that the real issue was self-determination and the right to a representative government. Mubarak was not the issue, only a specific example of the larger problem of a non-representative government. Ousting Mubarak was a subset of a larger set.

Mercifully the war finally ended. On April 3, 1865, Richmond, Virginia, fell to Union soldiers as Confederate troops retreated to the West, exhausted, weak, and low on supplies. On April 5, Generals Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant started an exchange of notes that would lead to Lee's surrender at Appomattox on April 9. But damn if the South does not hold on to the war as if they never actually lost, fighting incongruously for a hopeless cause of questionable value while simultaneously wrapping themselves in the American flag representing the Union they are so proud of leaving.

We endure today strange twists of history like Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell proclaiming April "Confederate History Month" without ever mentioning slavery. When questioned about this curious oversight, McDonnell lamely explained that "there were any number of aspects to that conflict between the states. Obviously, it involved slavery. It involved other issues. But I focused on the ones I thought were most significant for Virginia." Really? If slavery was not among the most "significant" issues for Virginia, exactly what other state right was more important? This is the downside of the argument I try to make here; it is open to abuse by this kind of intellectual trash. Sadly, McDonnell is the not the first governor of his state to explicitly omit slavery from lofty declarations. Former Republican Virginia Governor Republican George Allen also failed to recognize slavery when making a similar proclamation. Seems to be a disease of Republican governors, a historic irony given the role of the young Republican Party in the war.

Ah, yes, we also have the Confederate flag. What exactly about the war's history would lead one to fly a Confederate flag over a state capitol building, or paste one on a F150 bumper or wear one on a T-shirt? Does the flag indicate pride about the effort to protect slavery? Or attempting to secede from the Union? For starting a war in which two percent of the population died? For losing the war? These are odd banners to carry around for nearly 150 years. Perhaps the pride comes from the fact that the South stood up to a greater power, at least checking or slowing the pace of an expanding federalism. But even that does not pass the smell test; by starting but then losing the war the South created the exact opposite effect, solidifying federal power like never before.

Let's be clear that the South sought to destroy the United States, not only through war but just in the act of secession. Once the principle of seceding is established the glue holding the Union together would soon dissolve. Proof of that is in the fact that during the war the Confederacy began to dissolve through the secession of Southern states from the Confederacy! South Carolina, the first state to secede from the Union, also threatened later to secede from the Confederacy, as did Georgia later in the war. The legitimacy of secession could lead to nothing but balkanization, a group of independent states much like we see in Europe. The United States of American could not exist.

The South started and lost a war that nearly destroyed the United States. The cause was unjust, the economic justification unseemly. The actions were treasonous. There is no part of the Confederate cause of which to be proud. There is no moral high ground here. Southerners who claim a deep national pride celebrate their ancestors' efforts to dissolve the very union of states whose flag they now so proudly fly. They honor a campaign to destroy our country through dissolution but claim the mantle of patriot. A southern loyalist cannot be a patriot; the two ideals are mutually incompatible. As I have said before, you cannot simultaneously love the United States and love the idea of seceding from the United States. To claim both is equivalent of declaring that you love all Mexican food but hate enchiladas. The claims are each exclusive of the other and therefore by definition both cannot be true.

The war was about a principle, state sovereignty and the right of secession, that would destroy the United States; the example of that issue was the right to own slaves. Neither cause should induce pride. As we celebrate this 150 year anniversary, the South should humbly honor the victory of the North and ask forgiveness for waging a bloody war against reason and decency.

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of, Beyond Cosmic Dice: Moral Life in a Random World (Jacquie Jordan, Inc ). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.

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